Teaching with Text Messages and Tweets

Over the weekend, Andy Selsberg—author and instructor of English at John Jay College—wrote an op ed for the NYTimes online called Teaching to the Text Message.” In this short post, he explained that he has characteristically taught five-paragraph essays and research papers, and only recently introduced very brief assignments to help students hone their concise writing. Over time, he’s gone from giving “two-line” assignments to asking students to write Amazon reviews that exclude “gratuitous modern argot and emoticons” and short YouTube video comments.  He mixes these in with longer assignments, saying that he sees value in rewarding concision.

It’s interesting to consider both what Selsberg did and what he didn’t do. What he did is take the very short genres seriously and consider how writing well in them could be efficacious for (and interesting to) his students. What he didn’t do by excluding the diction, orthography, and emoticons that are characteristic of some very short genres, is treat these genres as distinct genres—only as shorter versions of academic-style writing, and through this, he lost an opportunity.

Teachers complain that students can’t distinguish formal from informal diction, that text messaging lingo slinks into their school essays, that they can’t spell. It’s arguable that treating the SMS and tweet seriously enough to discuss the language characteristics—how and why the abbreviations, slang, and orthographic ingenuity work well in the context—and addressing head-on the question of when these adaptations of the standards are appropriate and why is a more productive approach.

This is one of the topics addressed in the new first chapter I’ve written for the third edition of Painless Spelling (due out in August). Titled “Spelling in the 21st Century,” the chapter clarifies for students what the attributes of informal writing and spelling are, why it works well in the genres in which it was developed, and why it makes teachers (and parents) upset. By placing the orthography used in text messages and tweets in the context of:

• an understanding of speech registers and contextual expectations ranging from extreme formality to extreme informality;

• the reality that many words have multiple accepted spellings in American English (hoofs/hooves);

• the intermingling of British and American English without labels on the Internet, so that students may see acceptable spelling variations (color/colour) that may be considered wrong in the classroom; and

• the history of altered spelling in vanity license plates and trade names (Dunkin’ Donuts),

the discussion avoids the framing of falling educational standards and is placed in the frame of making appropriate choices from a range of possibilities.

Anyone who has had access to the news in recent days has probably seen (here arranged in alphabetical order):






—an opportunity to realize that spelling is not a settled issue. Helping students to understand not only the skills of spelling but also the strategic choices involved is, in my opinion, the best means for students to become good spellers in the context of being thoughtful communicators.

The new edition of Painless Spelling is available for pre-order from Barnes and Noble online.

NaNoWriMo: Go, Team, Go!

Looking for a name for a fictional sports team that has a role in your story? Seeking the name of a real high school team or school nickname?

You’ll want to visit the website High School Nicknames.

On this site, you can find:

• Many, many high school team names, organized alphabetically (did you know that there are two US high school teams called the Aardvarks? How about a team called the Zebras? Would you believe, the Lawyers? The Sea Turtles? The Grape Pickers? The Pied Pipers? The Koalas?

• Top team names by state.

• Top team names across the country. Quick, what’s your guess for most popular high school sports team name?

After you learn that Eagles is the most popular high school sports team name, you might want to check out the teams at Junior CollegesFour Year Colleges, and Professional Sports Teams.

NaNoWriMo: Valuable Sources for Character Names

I ran across some useful sources for character names today that I’d like to share.

• Native American names at Writing Adolescent Fiction/Character Names/Native American but be sure to carefully distinguish tribe-appropriate names.

Wikipedia Category: Surnames a listing of a large number of surnames that can be searched by the first two letters

White Pages.com, a place where you can see the distribution of a surname across the United States and also find out how popular it is

Baby Name Data from the Social Security Administration, in case you have a question like: what boys names were popular  in the U.S. in the 1890s? Data is available by decade and state, and you can also find popular names for twins.

Baby Names World, a particularly useful name site because besides searching by name, you can search by a set of letters that appear at the start, end, or anywhere in the name.

NaNoWriMo: Text, Story, Fabula

Mieke Bal in Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative distinguishes between text, story, and fabula as a way of understanding narrative. What do these term mean and what import do they have for NaNoWriMo?

In Bal’s explication, fabula refers to the chronological sequence of events that underlies the narrative. Story refers to the way in which the fabula is presented—all the choices made about narration, dialogue, sequence, etc., all the artful choices that shape the way the fabula is revealed. And text is the final form through which the story reaches its audience, which in the case of NaNoWriMo is a given—a novel.

The distinction between story and text is initially unclear, I think, when Bal defines story as “a fabula that is presented in a certain manner,” because the word manner seems like it could encompass aspects of both story and text. One way to think of it is that a story of, say, the sequence of events that we know as Cinderella, that was decided to be completely done through dialogue and in chronological order still could result in a variety of texts including a puppet show and a play, or even an opera. The text is only the concrete form in which the story reaches the audience, it seems.

Theoretically speaking (and I say that because I have never done NaNoWriMo before and am not speaking from experience), the  implications for NaNoWriMo seem to be that if a writer does not know the fabula before beginning, but is letting it develop simultaneously with the story, the scope for crafting the story in ways that are quite distinct from the fabula (such as, starting in media res and other approaches that take the story telling out of chronological order) are limited, as is the ability to lay groundwork earlier for what happens later, and the ability to present material in order to create an effect.

Add the admonition to “forge ahead” without rewriting, and it seems to me possible that a NaNoWriMoer could pour a lot of effort into a draft that will be closer to fabula than to story.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has thoughts about this.


NaNoWriMo Establishing Place and Considering Narration

After beginning chapter 6 of my NaNoWriMo novel yesterday, I stopped short and read chapters 1-5 all together.

There is—intentionally—a great deal of dialogue. The action of this novel is driven by communication.

But I realized that in focusing on that element of the story, I had not yet given sufficient attention to establishing place: there isn’t yet “a there there.” In considering this, I looked at several beginnings of books that bear some resemblance to mine: multi-volume works for YA and up, and found them all very quick to establish place.

I also realized that in focusing on establishing characterization and setting the plot in motion, I hadn’t given the depth of thought necessary to establishing the persona of my narrator and attended consciously to choices about how the reader will encounter the story that currently resides in my mind and an odd collection of scraps of paper, computer files, and iPod notes.

So, today my plan is twofold: to find ways to incorporate setting detail and to begin reading (in one case) and rereading (in the other) Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative by Mieke Bal and The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth.